Atlanta Public Schools will give students the option to return to class in-person starting next week. But some teachers and parents don’t think it’s safe enough to return.
The Atlanta Federation of Teachers and Atlanta Association of Educators held a demonstration over the weekend protesting APS’s plan. Some opponents of reopening say Covid-19 infection rates are too high to safely return. Others would like the district to increase safety measures, such as requiring Covid-19 tests and ensuring teachers are vaccinated before resuming face-to-face classes.
“It’s not safe for our students and their families,” said APS teacher Tracey Pendley at the demonstration. “It is not safe for teachers and our families.” Pendley was the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She’s one of many teachers questioning the district’s decision to resume in-person classes when other metro Atlanta districts, like Gwinnett and Cobb, shifted to remote learning this week due to high infection rates.
Christie Lowell is a high school science teacher. She said rising Covid cases are just one problem officials need to consider.
“We have also the new [Covid-19] variant here,” she said. “It just seems like a really terrible time to go back [in buildings]. I’m not really sure what would be the reason for doing that. It’s not like you’re going to get different instruction in school, since not all the kids are coming back.”
Lowell said in a class of 25 students, she may have 20 who are still remote and just five in person. They’ll all be on laptops.
“So the kids who are in class are going to be on Zoom with headsets doing the exact same thing they’d be doing at home,” Lowell said.
APS students have been learning remotely since last March when Gov. Brian Kemp ordered school buildings to close. Some supporters of resuming in-person classes say it has caused students to fall behind. Jennifer Rogers is the parent of four APS students. She doesn’t think remote instruction is as effective as face-to-face learning, but she’s not sending her kids back to school yet.
“This year might be a wash,” Rogers said. “What happens if we say, ‘Hey, let’s wait until there’s enough of the community vaccinated and then we can bridge the gaps in education that people are having?'”
At a December school board meeting, Superintendent Lisa Herring said APS would resume in-person learning on Jan. 25 unless a government-mandated shutdown were in place.
Herring said APS has closely consulted with public health experts. She said infection rates wouldn’t be the only metric APS used to determine whether to reopen, and that district officials are confident schools can mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
“The metrics aren’t going anywhere, Herring said. “We have a responsibility to continue to monitor them, but it is not our sole indicator…we’ve also paid close attention to the importance of CDC guidelines. What has been critically clear is the ability to effectively mitigate safety and health risks in our buildings and in all of our schools.”
The district’s mitigation efforts include temperature checks, using face masks and shields, social distancing, and distributing protective equipment for students and staff to use inside buildings.
Despite those measures, reopening now just doesn’t make sense to Christie Lowell.
“Science teachers have talked a lot about looking at data,” she said. “And I just can’t believe that we’re not even considering data at this point. As science teachers were just floored. How are we going to teach kids about data if we just don’t look at it?”
The district says data is part of its decision-making process. But to Jennifer Rogers, it’s unwise to bring students back right now.
“I just think it’s not safe for the teachers, for the family members of the students that could potentially become infected…and it’s just too many variables right now,” she said.
A group of parents and teachers called We Demand Safety APS has written letters to Herring, asking that the district increase safety protocols and to provide more specific communication with APS staff and families.
The district released the following statement on its re-opening plans and says more information can be found on its website.
“As Atlanta Public Schools (APS) prepares to phase in some of our students who have opted for in-person learning, beginning on January 25, we are diligently monitoring the level of community spread of COVID-19 daily. The health of our students, teachers, and staff is paramount and we take our decision to offer the option for in-person learning very seriously. We value and respect the critical role our teachers play in the education of our students and we continue to listen carefully and intently to their input and recommendations. Over the past several months, we have engaged with teachers, principals, school leaders, parents, public health officials, and others in implementing the recommended mitigation strategies and protocols in every school and building in the District. We will remain engaged with our teachers and other stakeholders throughout this process and work collaboratively through this unprecedented time in the best interest of our APS community.”
A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.